Those who work in juvenile justice, such as judges, lawyers, probation officers, therapists, and social workers, often interact with young individuals who have experienced significant trauma. This exposure can impact their personal and professional lives.

34 % of public defenders met criteria for STS. (1) 75 % 75% of public defenders met criteria for functional impairment (disruption in personal life, family life, work life, etc.) (1) 81 % of surveyed juvenile justice educators met at least one diagnostic criteria for PTSD. (2)

Why It Matters/Implications

For juvenile justice professionals, the impact of secondary traumatic stress can play out in several ways

  1. Emotional Toll on Professionals

    Hearing about and witnessing traumatic experiences on a regular basis can lead to emotional exhaustion which can negatively impact the mental health and well-being of professionals, potentially leading to burnout and reduced job satisfaction.

  2. Quality of Care and Decision-Making

    Professionals in the juvenile justice system make critical decisions that can significantly impact the lives of young individuals. These decisions may involve determining appropriate interventions, placements, or sentencing. Secondary traumatic stress can impair professionals' ability to think clearly, make sound judgments, and act in the best interests of the juveniles they serve. It's important that these professionals maintain their emotional resilience to ensure that they are making informed and compassionate decisions.

  3. Relationships with Young Individuals

    Building positive relationships with young individuals in the justice system is essential for their rehabilitation and well-being. Professionals who are experiencing STS may struggle to establish and maintain these relationships due to emotional detachment, irritability, or reduced empathy, which can impact the effectiveness of interventions and support provided to these juveniles.

  4. Systemic Impact

    The cumulative impact of secondary traumatic stress on juvenile justice professionals can contribute to a broader systemic issue. High turnover rates, reduced job satisfaction, and a shortage of experienced professionals can undermine the overall effectiveness of the juvenile justice system. A workforce that is overwhelmed by STS might struggle to provide consistent and high-quality services to the young individuals under their care.

  5. Personal and Professional Boundaries

    Working in the juvenile justice system requires professionals to navigate emotionally charged situations while maintaining professional boundaries. Secondary traumatic stress can blur these boundaries, leading to emotional over-involvement, frustration, or difficulty separating work from personal life.

What Can Be Done

To address secondary traumatic stress in juvenile justice, it's crucial for organizations and institutions to implement strategies that support the well-being of their employees. Best strategies include a combination of individual, organizational, and systemic strategies, such as:

  • Provide regular supervision and debriefing sessions
  • Offer training on trauma-informed care
  • Promote self-care practices
  • Create a supportive work environment that acknowledges the emotional challenges associated with the job. 
  • Build supports at individual, organizational, and systemic level → think beyond “self-care” and build in supports for workforce 

By addressing STS, professionals can better serve the needs of the juveniles in their care and contribute to a more effective and compassionate juvenile justice system.

I don’t have the mental space to play or fake the enthusiasm [with my own children]

You can’t live this 24/7, or you will burn out

When workers have too many cases, that hurts their advocacy. I’ve seen this 100%.

Juvenile Justice Solutions Resources
NCTSN - Fact Sheet: A Trauma-Informed Guide for Working with Youth Involved in Multiple Systems
Type: Workplace
Category: Web or Print Resource

Offers guidance to help those working with youth involved in multiple systems (YIMS) and their families to use a traumatic stress perspective and provide trauma-informed care. This resource guide uses two case vignettes throughout to illustrate the concepts within. It describes what trauma and recovery might look like for YIMS, trauma-informed practices that could be beneficial, using trauma-informed screening and assessment with YIMS, engaging in trauma-infromed case planning and intervention, and managing secondary traumatic stress for providers.

NCTSN - Secondary Traumatic Stress A Fact Sheet for Child-Serving Professionals
Type: Workplace
Category: Web or Print Resource

Offers child-serving professionals information about secondary traumatic stress (STS). This fact sheet describes how individuals experience STS, understanding who is at risk, how to identify STS, strategies for prevention and intervention, and essential elements to address STS.

NCTSN - Secondary Traumatic Stress Core Competencies for Trauma-Informed Support and Supervision: Cross-Disciplinary Version
Type: Workplace
Category: Web or Print Resource

Is a companion document to the Secondary Traumatic Stress Core Competencies for Trauma-Informed Support and Supervision: Cross-Disciplinary Version offers further explanation, examples, and strategies for each benchmark. Supervisors can use this document to support their own growth and help put these competencies into action. There is also a list of supportive resources at the end of this document that offers further learning opportunities and more concrete strategies.

Citations for Juvenile Justice

(1) Levin AP, Albert L, Besser A, Smith D, Zelenski A, Rosenkranz S, Neria Y. "Secondary traumatic stress in attorneys and their administrative support staff working with trauma-exposed clients," J Nerv Ment Dis. 2011 Dec;199(12):946-55. doi: 10.1097/NMD.0b013e3182392c26. PMID: 22134453

(2) Smith Hatcher, S., Bride, B. E., Oh, H., Moultrie King, D., & Franklin Catrett, J., “An Assessment of Secondary Traumatic Stress in Juvenile Justice Education Workers,” 2011


With thanks to the Support Center for Child Advocates (Child Advocates), Center for Excellence in Advocacy for this page content. 

Child Advocates provides legal and social service advocacy to children and youth who have experienced child abuse and neglect with the goal of securing safety, justice, well-being and a permanent, nurturing environment for every child. Their training department, the Center for Excellence in Advocacy,   aims to improve outcomes for children and families, especially those involved in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, by improving the practice of those who work with them.

This project was supported by PCCD Subgrant #36804 awarded by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency (PCCD).. The opinions, findings and conclusions expressed within this publication/program/exhibition are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of PCCD.